Trump’s Gone, But Tensions Still Loom in US-South Korea Alliance

After U.S. President Joe Biden took office last week, perhaps no world leader breathed a bigger public sigh of relief than South Korean President Moon Jae-in.  “America is back,” Moon declared in a congratulatory message marking Biden’s inauguration. The statement didn’t directly mention outgoing President Donald Trump, but the intent was clear..FILE – Police officers use umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun while anti-war activists hold a rally against planned South Korea-U.S. annual joint military exercises near the U.S. embassy in Seoul, Aug. 5, 2019.Worry in Seoul A more adversarial U.S. stance toward North Korea would likely upset Moon and his allies in Seoul. At a news conference last week, Moon said the starting point for Biden should be the 2018 Singapore agreement between Kim and Trump, in which both sides agreed to “work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”  In an North Korean soldiers keep watch toward the south as South Korean Unification Minister Lee In-young inspects the truce village of Panmunjom, Sep. 24, 2020.But will it work? That kind of push for talks would in some ways mirror 2018, when Seoul successfully converted inter-Korean sports cooperation at the Winter Olympics into a series of North-South meetings, which eventually led to the Trump-Kim talks.  But there are plenty of reasons to question whether such a move would work this time. The most obvious: the Olympics may not be held at all because of the coronavirus. If the games were held, host Japan may not agree to participate in the talks.  “I’d be shocked if his plan worked again because the environment right now is completely different,” says Duyeon Kim, a Korea specialist at the Center for a New American Security.  “It was easy to trick Trump into a summit with Kim because Trump loves theatrics and a good photo op,” she adds. “Biden is too smart, experienced, and serious about national security.” How will North Korea respond? In any case, North Korea may not even agree to resume dialogue. For months, Pyongyang has boycotted meetings with both the United States and South Korea, upset among other things that Washington has not relaxed sanctions on its nuclear program. 
At a major political meeting this month, North Korea said it was looking for ways to improve relations with the South, but called on Seoul to stop holding military drills with Washington and to stop acquiring new military capabilities.  North Korea has also showcased several new weapons over the last few months, including a massive new intercontinental ballistic missile, as well as a ballistic missile possibly designed to be fired from a submarine.  Some analysts have expressed concern North Korea could soon test one of those new weapons, or possibly conduct another nuclear test, noting Pyongyang’s tendency to showcase new military capabilities around the start of U.S. administrations.  Staying on the same page  Another concern among some analysts is that such a major test by the North could sharpen divides between Biden and Moon. “I hope Seoul and Washington can stay on the same page, because it’s going to be challenging. North Korea will continue to pressure South Korea, and there’s only a year left from the Moon administration’s perspective,” said Sue Mi Terry, a Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, during a recent online forum. “The Moon administration just needs to realize that they’re just not going to be able to appease the North,” said Terry, a former CIA analyst. “There’s not going to be a breakthrough on inter-Korean relations until there is a breakthrough between the United States and North Korea.” Some in Seoul are more optimistic, expressing hope Biden and Moon will find enough common ground. “The Biden administration cannot ignore” North Korea, says Youn Kun-young, a South Korean lawmaker and member of Moon’s Democratic Party. “(And) solving the North Korean nuclear issue with only sanctions just isn’t possible.”  Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.

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